The Witching Cities: Chapter 3

The Witching Cities: Chapter 3

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The Great City

The hall running parallel to that which Jehf and Ahlbrecht had taken was similarly closed by deteriorating ironwork which fell away like ash with a brush of Eriahmys’s fingers. She and Lusa crossed the threshold, their gowns untouched by the metallic powder. The sconces in the hall awoke in Eriahmys’s presence, flashing into ethereal light. Intuition told Lusa what this place had been and why it remained in hiding beneath the city; her own original temple also remained standing, though none had visited it in many human lifetimes. Many doors fringed off the hall ahead of them, but the Witches examined none of them, instead moving steadily toward their goal, even as the hall began to incline little by little.

“We of course seek pure water,” Eriahmys said. “And as with all of Mother’s matters, it must be specific.”

“A subterranean stream?”

“Just so. Its water seeps into the aqueducts in places, but the source itself is pure—it originates in Mother’s lands.”

Lusa trained her eye upon Eriahmys’s back. “That is a long way.”

“It is. A taste of the water will show you that I speak true. Her city—I can almost see it with that river on my lips.”

To this Lusa said nothing. An echo of memory lay in all their minds of what had once been, and Lusa did not doubt that Eriahmys sensed the past more keenly than her sisters could.

The way before them leveled and turned in a smooth sweep, nearly a spiral, which brought them to the end of the salt. Common stone took its place and a growing susurration became a bold song as the stream came into view, no more than a glimpse of rushing water among the rocks. A gap in the stone provided access to the water large enough for grasping hands, and to it Eriahmys knelt, a bulbous crystal bottle forming in her grip as she did. This she dipped into the water, careful to keep her sleeve from the surface, and when the bottle had filled she stood and turned to Lusa.

“If you wish, you may drink. Our bodies cannot contaminate it, but mind your clothing.”

Lusa did as her sister suggested, taking only a palmful of water from the stream and sipping it from her cupped hands. The effect Eriahmys had described was immediate—a quick impression, like the flash of a photograph, that encompassed not only the vision of the Great City but also the feeling of it, what it had been like to live there. The effect passed just as swiftly, and, though reeling from the impact, Lusa found she could not recollect the details. Trying to do so only pushed them farther away. She caught Eriahmys’s eye.

“If we pour this water from the ewer to the scrying bowl, we should see her city as it exists today,” Eriahmys said. “Like using the orbiter to commune with one another, I think we will know what it is we see in its truth.”

“I believe it,” said Lusa, “and I do not think any of us, corrupted, could touch this water without consequence. No. I believe we are all tainted now, but only because our forebear has broken all of her promises.”

“Can a dead woman break a promise?”

“Can a Witch truly die?”

Eriahmys’s lips quirked. “Let us return. Our human friends have surely finished their task.”

Ahlbrecht set the scrying bowl upon the pulpit’s dais and sat on one of the salt-hewn pews. Jehf, standing by the bowl, merely held the ewer as his eyes roved over the dim space.

“Shall I pay you a drachma, to hear your thoughts?” joked Ahlbrecht.

“They’re not quite words,” Jehf replied after a pause. “This place is very old, and well-preserved for the age. I feel as though… I’m looking into a history, an image or hologram. Do you not feel it?”

“I can’t say I do. I feel that we sit inside a relic, but I think that’s not quite what you mean.”

Jehf nodded. “I feel changed, Ahlbrecht, and so changed I see a new world. It cannot be how all the citizens live their lives—it’s not how we saw Illymere.”

Ahlbrecht mulled that thought over and suggested, “Perhaps it is. We are both Illymere natives; it was all we knew until this quest. How can we say that the Illymere we saw was at all similar to that which visitors saw? The Eriahmys you see differs, I think, from the one I perceive, and is it not different too from the one you understood when you first entered the city?”

“That’s true. You’ve always been a surprisingly keen philosopher,” he said, making Ahlbrecht laugh.

The Witch of Cinders and Witch of Ice returned a short time later, the former carrying an odd bottle of bright water. The Witch of Cinders complimented them on their success, and the Witch of Ice accepted the ewer from Jehf, who took a place beside Ahlbrecht to observe.

Eriahmys filled the ewer with the water from her strange bottle. “Do you wish to look, or shall I?”

“Together,” said Lusa, “if we may.”

“Certainly. We pour together while gazing into the bowl.”

“Ahlbrecht, Jehf, do not interrupt. The ritual will be delicate in the mind,” Lusa said, and the messengers murmured their acquiescence.

Side by side, the Witch of Cinders and Witch of Ice took position over the scrying bowl, both holding the handle of the ewer. So paired, their symmetries became apparent, as did their individualisms—shared height and like movement against contrasting coloration and unrelated features. The Witches tipped the ewer, its shimmering water spilling forth into the scrying bowl and gliding around its curvature with peculiar cohesion. The water settled into perfect stillness as the last drop fell, and the Witches bent over it, though they did not lower the ewer.

To Ahlbrecht and Jehf, it seemed that little happened save that the innate light of the water intensified, casting vague shadows upon the Witches’ faces that were not echoed in the smooth surface of the water. But within the bowl the Witches saw a land long forgotten, its ruins little more than small disruptions in the landscape; and yet that landscape seemed so gray, sapped of color and life, its vegetation paltry. Within it there lingered one structure—a hut built of sticks, about the shape and size of a sitting human being, though one of unusual height. It was unoccupied by anything at all, and as the Witches studied it, the vision changed, revealing a shift in the landscape—heights inappropriate to a ruin so long abandoned.

There, a building of common construction, its roof sharply tapered against the snow, and past it another, and so another, and fourth, fifth, sixth, and inhabitants for each, bundled against the snow in furs and leathers and down-filled coats. As the vision broadened, Lusa and Eriahmys understood that the first covenant had indeed been broken, for an entire town had been built upon the ruins of the Great City and in so being, the Great City had finally been colonized.

The Witches pulled back from the scrying bowl with a swimmer’s gasp and turned to one another, lowering the ewer. “I will explain to our sisters,” said Lusa.

“Ardis will seek to remove them, by force. It will not restore the covenant.”

“No, but she will see that when her anger subsides. I will return to Lusa to ensure their faith when I speak to them, but I mean to be at your side, Eriahmys. Do not proceed recklessly.”

Ahlbrecht stood. “My lady, where you go, I too shall go, to be whatever use I may.”

The Witch of Ice greeted this news with a smile, and, meeting Ahlbrecht in the nave, took her hand. “Let us make haste, then.” The pair proceeded from the salt mines, back to the Oracle Shrine.

Left alone, Eriahmys approached Jehf and placed a hand upon his shoulder. “Friend Jehf, I believe we will ask much of you and Ahlbrecht before this is done. I cannot promise that you will find a satisfactory end to this, either. The Witching Cities will not be the same.”

Jehf turned to face her, taking her long hands in his. “Eriahmys, having come this far, I cannot conceive of stopping now. Whatever can be saved, I will help you save. Do not doubt that.”

Eriahmys laughed lightly. “Then I will count upon you, Jehf. There is much to do.”

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